The greatest problem-solving tool you can use

Have you ever been summoned to the conference room, for an all-day, intensive problem-solving session? You spend the day locked in a room with the best minds in the company,  the flip chart paper, the white board, the markers, the PowerPoint presentations, the bottomless coffee, the debating and head-scratching.

And finally, yes, finally, you come up with the answer of all answers.  You put it all into a report. And perhaps you even implement your solution.

But fast forward one year later, and you realize you’re right back where you started. You find yourself still trying to solve the same problem.

Sound familiar? Whether you’re in a complex corporate structure or you’re a sole proprietor searching for better project planning solution or a scheduling system, or you’re just trying to lose 10 pounds: the issue is often the same. It’s not that we come up with the wrong answers. It’s that we’re solving the wrong problems.

We’re focusing on the wrong thing. We’re solving what I call surface-level problems or symptom problems, not root cause problems.

How do we know we’re solving the wrong problem? Because it returns again and again.

When I see dandelions in my yard, my first thought is, “it’s a great day to cut the grass,” because I want them to go away as quickly and painlessly as possible. But what’s going to happen? They will return. Why? Because I didn’t get the root.

​Here’s another example. Have you ever lost weight using formalized weight-loss program, only to gain the weight back? Well, did the program work? Yes, of course it did, because you lost the weight.

But you solved the wrong problem. And the reason you can tell you solved the wrong problem is because it returned.

The question to ask yourself, is not “what program should I try next?”  The right question is “WHY did I go off the program in the first place?”

Now you’re getting closer to solving the root cause. The key is to ask not “what,” but “why.”

Decades ago in efforts to become one of the world’s leading car manufacturers, Toyota Motor Corporation looked at problem-solving in a new, revolutionary way. One of the tools they developed is called “The Five Why’s.” The basic premise of “The Five Why’s” is that if you have a problem and you ask the question “why” five times, you will get to the root cause and solve the problem in a way it doesn’t return.

I use this approach in my own life and with every single client I work with and have seen phenomenal results.

A few months ago, I worked with someone who was a very successful, high performing leader in his organization. He was planning to retire early and looking forward to starting his dream retirement career. When he came to me, he had spent two years on a project plan to get the new business started, but the problem was that he had made no forward progress on implementing the plan.

So, I asked him, not “what,” but “why.” And here’s how it went:

Why:  have you not started the project?

Answer: I don’t have time.

Why: don’t you have time?

Answer: I have a stressful job, I’m tired at the end of the day, and I just come home and probably watch too much T.V.

Why: do you watch too much T.V. instead of work on your project?

Answer: Well, actually, I’m a bit of a procrastinator when it comes to this project.

Why: do you think that is?

Answer: The project “to-do” list is too huge and overwhelming.

SOLUTION: We determined he would devote 10 hours a week to working on the project and selected a small subset of the most immediate tasks that could easily be completed each week. In three weeks, he had completed more work on the project than in the previous two years.

I realize that sounds somewhat simple, but the answers often are simple. We just assume that the answers we’re looking for must be complex because nothing we’ve tried seems to work. But that’s only because we’re solving the wrong problem. We’re solving surface-level problems, not root-cause problems.

Clients come to me for many different reasons. But the one thing they have in common is there is a problem to solve.

If you’re not in the job that you want, or you’re not getting the sales you want, ask “The Five Why’s.” If your employees are not performing as well as you’d like, ask “The “5 Why’s.” Heck, if you can’t get your spouse to listen to a word you say, or get your kids to pick up around the house, ask “The “5 Why’s.”

Problems are painful, and we want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. But solving our problems has a much deeper purpose on our lives than just making life easier or making our pain go away.

It’s who we become in the process of digging below the surface and facing the problem head-on, that makes it worth the effort. We grow as people, we become stronger, we develop character.

I believe each of us has a unique purpose to fulfill in this life. And when we can uncover, attack and resolve recurring problems that pop up over and over in our lives, we come one step closer to discovering, pursuing and fulfilling that unique purpose.

Here’s a tool to help you solve the never-ending problem of feeling overwhelmed and overloaded. Download my PICK your priorities worksheet to help you determine which tasks to do next, and which to kick out.

5 replies
  1. Adrienne Davis
    Adrienne Davis says:

    Thank you Marianne! I’m going to try this in my own life. And no need to get rid of the dandelions. They’re beautiful! 🙂


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